by Tom Staley

As seen in Antiques & Art Around Florida, Winter/Spring 1998

Florida in the 1890’s was still very much a frontier, with large, unpopulated areas of land. And for good reason! The land was primarily swamp. The US Army Corps of Engineers later constructed a system of drainage canals that diverted the unwanted water into the ocean.

It was said back then that one of Florida’s greatest resources was Northerners. They came by the hundreds, on steamships or by rail, first to Jacksonville and then on to other cities further south. The Clyde Steamship Company specialized in taking passengers directly from New York City to Jacksonville, Fla. The Company published a booklet in 1889 called "Facts About Florida" in which it says, “It is our intention to direct the Northern tourist, the health and pleasure seeker, to the many objects of beauty in this wonderful the traveling public an approximate cost of a winter’s rest in the Riviera of America.” Large hotels were built to accomodate these travelers, who were often referred to as “invalids” by the local people.

The alligator motif adorned nearly every kind of tourist item imaginable. In the book, "Dixie, Southern Scenes and Sketches", Julian Ralph talked about Bay Street in Jacksonville, as it was in 1895. He wrote “the main street is fit to be called Alligator Avenue, because of the myraid ways in which that animal is offered as a sacrifice to the curiosity and thoughtlessness of the crowds. I did not happen to see any alligators served on toast there, but I saw them stuffed and skinned, turned into bags, or kept in tanks and boxes and cages; their babies made into ornaments or on sale as toys; their claws used as purses, their teeth as jewelry, their eggs as curios. Figures of them were carved on canes, moulded on souvenir spoons, painted on china, and sold in the form of photographs, watercolor studies, breastpins and carvings.”

Of particular interest to me are the carved alligator items of the period. They have been found in the form of canes, boxes, napkin rings, cuff links, whistles, letter openers, ink wells, candalabras, wall hangings, cigarette holders, lapel pins, snuff boxes and corkscrews. The various materials used for carving included wood, bone, ivory, horn, tusk, tooth, and even peach pits.

Alligator corkscrew
Alligators carved like this one have been found signed with a 3 point star.
All photos are by the author.

Although it seems there were many carvers of alligator items during the late 1800's and early 1900's, only three different people appear to have been carving the alligator handles for corkscrews. Since I am intimately involved with corkscrews generally, I shall focus on them here. They were carved out of at least four different materials; wood, deerhorn, African boar tusk, and ivory. Often silverwork capped the end of a tusk handle. The remarkable thing about these corkscrews is that some of them appear to have been marked with a kind of signature.

One type, with a handle of wood, was mounted on the 1897 Williamson-type corkscrew shank . The alligator has a rather chubby, unnatural look. These have been found signed with a 3-point star.

A second type has been found on African boar tusk with a Walker-type corkscrew shank. The examples that I know of all have ceramic eyes. The carving resembles a large lizard more than it does an alligator. None of the corkscrews that I’ve seen are signed, but one wooden letter opener with a similar carved alligator has been found marked with a 4-point star signature.

A third type was most commonly carved on deerhorn, and less frequently, on boar tusk, and ivory. These are the most realistic of all, and, when signed, have a 5-point star.

Alligator Corkscrew with a 4 point star.
A similar alligator to this one has been found on a wooden
letter opener signed with a 4 point star.

This carver often applied beautiful colors to his finished product. They have been found on several kinds of corkscrew shanks, including a plain shank without bell, the 1897 Williamson-type shank, and the faceted shank. The items made of deerhorn all seem to have been signed with the 5-point star. Some examples have the figure of a black man in the alligator’s mouth. This was not an uncommon image in the Southern U.S. at that time.

A good friend of mine, the writer Jake Glisson of Evinston, Florida, has been around alligators all his life. He remarked to me that the 5-point carver was actually carving "baby" alligators. Jake told me, "The person who carved them knew a lot about alligators."

Were these three carvers working in close proximity to one another, each using his own signature? It seems likely, since many anatomical details are carved similarly on all three variations. There is just enough variation, however, to recognize one carver’s work as being different from another’s. The signature style, the star within a circle, is often seen on Black Forest woodcarvings, usually on the end of a log. It looks very much like the “checking” that appears on the end of a log as it dries. But on some examples of carved souvenir pipes the signature is actually carved into the curved, outer surface of the pipebowl, and in one case inlaid with nickle silver. It looks to be in every way a signature. It is probable that the corkscrews were sold through the finer jewelry stores and curio shops, and that the stores played a major role in not only selling the items, but in manufacturing them. The helices were likely purchased from either the Williamson or the Walker Companies (certainly the two largest corkscrew manufacturers of the time) and installed onto the handles later for the respective stores, who were engaged in intense competition with one another. This might explain why all 3 and 5-point handles are on Williamson hardware and all the 4-point handles are on Walker hardware.

Alligator corkscrew signed with a 5 point star.
Signed with a 5 point star as shown in the inset.

There are carved alligator-handle walking canes, always unsigned, that were made from the “sucker” of a citrus tree (see A Masters in Memorabilia, Antiques & Art Around Florida, Winter/Spring 1995). Suckers are straight, fast-growing shoots that appear on citrus trees. They are usually cut off and thrown away when the trees are pruned. In this case they were used as shafts for these tourist canes. Could the whole cane have been manufactured in the Jacksonville area, where there were orange trees, alligators, and tourists? A Florida publication dated 1875 has an advertisement for the Damon Greenleaf Jewelry Store in Jacksonville that states they sold “Walking canes of all kinds of Florida wood, carved and plain." The ad indicates the goods were locally made.

Are there other signature types out there? Other styles of alligators? Different materials? Maybe someone has the literary references that describe where, and by whom, these beautiful carvings were made.

A special thanks to Mary Ellen Taylor of the Jacksonville Historical Society Archive, Larry Roberts of Micanopy and Dwight DeVane of Gainesville, for helping with information for this article.

About the author:
Tom Staley, who is an avid corkscrew collector, lives in Micanopy, and, with his wife, Fay Baird, operates Staley’s Generally Dry Goods.

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